Day 92: Some Light Reading At The Beinecke

originally published April 1, 2012

I don’t often write about architecture, mainly because I’m unfamiliar with a lot of the terminology, and writing that some aspect of a building is “cool”, while another feature is “bitchin’” will not provide much in the way of satisfaction with my work. When Ms. Wiki’s random skeeball landed in the ring of architecture today, I almost skipped on to another subject. But then I had a good look at the building.

The Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library, located on the Yale campus, is remarkably both cool and bitchin’, there’s no other way to put it. Actually, there are probably several other ways to put it, most of which would provide substantially more information.

The photo above appears to be of a rather drab, windowless structure, hardly worth a closer look. It resembles a large, square air filter or a giant, doodled-upon Kleenex box, plunked onto a concrete pad. But a closer look reveals that the bland ‘squares’ are actually somewhat interesting:

This is a rare book library, actually the largest single building in the world to be devoted solely to the preservation of rare books. As such, windows were not an option. Direct sunlight on old books is about as useful as saltwater for guppies (as an aside, Saltwater for Guppies would be a wonderfully cryptic title for my forthcoming novel about forbidden romance between blind two blind Inuit people in the 18th century… duly noted). The Beinecke Library is built from translucent Danby marble. The stone lets through a subdued light, casting a curious glow inside.

And the inside is really where the building becomes impressive:

That’s a six-storey glass cube of sorts, displaying yet preserving the books in a way that allows for complete control of temperature, humidity, and whatever else needs to be controlled in order to keep old books safe (gamma rays, alpha particles, bad vibes, dark matter, etc.).

The building features a sunken courtyard with artwork by Isamu Noguchi. The installation features three components: a pyramid that represents time, a circle that represents the sun, and a cube that represents chance.

Gazing at this courtyard with my untrained eye, it looks like a skateboard park feature, a giant Life Saver (Pepp-O-Mint), and a big cube with a chunk missing from it. It’s a powerful artistic message about how shapes and stuff can be used to fill up space for a shit-ton of money.

There’s a reading room on this level, as well as a smattering of offices and storage for books unworthy (or perhaps too worthy?) of storage in the big glass cube upstairs. Underneath that is another floor, containing books and archives. This would probably be where they store the secret texts that Yale University doesn’t want anyone to know about.

So what do they have stashed away in the Beinecke Library? When they opened up in 1963 they brought over the rare books that had been stored at the Sterling Memorial Library on campus. Before long, they added a number of collections of rare American literature, German literature, and a collection of Western Americana. From what I can tell, there is no copy of Action Comics #1 in the building.

To get a spot on a shelf in the big glass cube, a book would have to have been printed in the United States before 1851, in North America before 1821, in Latin America before 1751, or anywhere before 1601. These were pretty high standards, though nowadays they have expanded their collection to include some modern-day books of poetry and art, as well as some rare papers by modern writers. I don’t know what that means – maybe Steven King’s grocery lists, or Tom Clancy’s secret list of NBA players who kind of piss him off.

Among the treasures at the Beinecke Library are the original Vinland Map. This was released to the world in 1965, and apparently depicts evidence that Europeans visited North America before Columbus. It’s a 15th century map of eleventh-century Norse exploration, clearly detailing a landmass to the southwest of Greenland, which they called Vinland.

Here’s what it looks like:

As you can see, it’s not especially accurate or detailed, though I suppose it was pretty sophisticated for an 11th-century audience. When photographs of the map were made public, a number of geography and medieval document experts began to suspect that it was a phony. When they discovered that one of the major ink ingredients was a 20th century pigment, the doubters had some ammo. They were also a little perplexed as to why the shape of the Greenland island was fairly accurate, whereas the shape of Norway, where the map was supposedly made, is the most inaccurately depicted part of Europe.

No problem, lots more to look at in the Beinecke. Check out the Cary Collection of playing cards. This namesake of font importer (seriously) Melbert Cary features more than 2600 decks of playing cards, plus some uncut sheets of cards and wooden blocks used in their printing. They have cards going back to the 15th century, including tarot cards, fortune-telling cards, and hopefully at least a handful of decks that feature naked pre-Victorian girls on the back.

If you’re more of a traditionalist, you can check out one of the forty-eight remaining copies of the Gutenberg Bible, on display under glass at the Beinecke. Worth probably more than any other book in the collection (since it’s a first-edition first-book-ever), this bible is the high-point destination for tourists, assuming there are people who tour old-book collections.

You’re probably hungering to catch a glimpse of the Beinecke collection up close. Next time you’re in New Haven, Connecticut, maybe because you’re wanting to see all the filming locations for Indiana Jones & The Crystal Skull, head to Yale University. The Beinecke is stashed right in the middle of campus, near the administration buildings and just across from where they make the freshmen eat lunch (probably while Seniors throw figs at them – there are always strange traditions at those ivy-league schools). If you can’t find it, just ask someone.

Or just look for the giant Life Saver.

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